The Pronunciation of the “Ineffable Name” According to a Jewish Text in the Museum

Babylonian Section

By: J. A. Montgomery

Originally Published in 1910

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One of the mysteries of Biblical scholarship is the correct form and pronunciation of the name of the God of Israel. This name consists of four consonants which may be represented in English by the letters YHWH. But the vocalization of the word known to English readers, “Jehovah,” is a fairly modern invention, arising in the middle ages1, in fact a philological monstrosity. The Jews themselves, according to their own tradition, had given up the public pronunciation of the word before the Christian era, and while there is evidence that the knowledge still survived in esoteric circles among the Jews2, the tradition of the pronunciation was at last utterly lost to them. They pointed the Tetragrammaton (i. e., YHWH) with vowel points, indicating that another word should be pronounced in its stead, and it is this other word “Lord” which in almost all the translations of the Bible, down to the more scientific attempts of modern times, represents the sacred name. In the King James Version it is spelled in capitals to distinguish it from the same word used as an epithet.

But a tradition of the pronunciation survived, as is so often the case with survivals, in certain unorthodox quarters. The Greek Fathers Theodoret and Epiphanius report that the Samaritans maintained the pronunciation as ’Iαβε, and the present writer has discovered in a Samaritan document of the beginning of the nineteenth century an Arabic transcription of the name which is to be pronounced Yahwah, or Yahwéh3. Similar forms are also found in early magical and gnostic papyri4. On the basis of such traditions and on philological grounds there has arisen the modern scientific pronunciation Yahweh (generally, though erroneously in English, spelled Jahweh).

An incantation bowl completely covered on the inside by concentric circles of Hebrew text with a diagram of some kind in the center.
Fig 16.-Hebrew Incantation. Bowl showing the “ineffable name”.
Object Number: B3997

Engaged in deciphering the collection of “Jewish” incantation bowls in the Museum, I have come upon a text which for the first time in the Judaistic field certainly represents the pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton. In the bowl in question (3997)5, there is read the adjuration that the evil spirits shall not appear to a certain man and his wife. The man’s name in the Aramaic (the characters are the Jewish square script)6 is: בר’כ’הב’ה son of Mami; his wife’s name is Ispandarmed, daughter of X (the mother’s name is mutilated). I give these circumstances in order to indicate that we are dealing with actual personal names, not with arbitrary magical formulas.

Now the man’s name which I have transcribed above in Hebrew characters is one that cannot be at once explained from Semitic or Iranian philology (most of the names in the bowls are Persian). The first four characters, however, are naturally read berîk, Aramaic for “blessed.” This suggests good Jewish names like Baruch (the Hebrew equivalent of the Aramaic form), Berechiah, etc. But the typical Jewish name (like ancient Semitic names in general) contains a divine element in composition. Berechiah = “BRK-Yahu (or Yah)”, = “Yahu-has-blessed” (Yahu being an earlier form of YHWH, or its contraction) ; Baruk, or Berik, likewise = “Blessed-of-Yahu.” We expect then after our first component “blessed” the divine name. Now the simplest reading of the five following characters (we must supply the vowels) gives Yahbeh; but b was probably soft and the transliteration might be more exactly represented by Yahveh. This is the Yahweh or Yahveh, as it is also spelled, of modern critical science.

How came the exorcist to spell out this divine name occurring in the composition of a personal name? Certainly no Jew of the period (the bowls belong to the sixth or seventh century A. C.) pronounced that name, nor in any name-composition in the Old Testament is the Tetragrammaton used ; it is represented by Yeho-, or -Yahu,-Yah. My theory to explain the peculiar phenomenon is this: the name of. the exorcist’s client was Baruk, or Berik, or Berekiah (or the like). But in spelling the name the exorcist has by a jeu d’esprit spelled it out; he has expressed the pronunciation of the ineffable name because of its magical potency. As it were he confronts the devils with his happy etymology: you cannot touch this man, for his very name is a talisman; I will pronounce that name for you, and when you hear it, you will tremble and flee. To be sure, only a mighty conjurer would dare to express the magical energy latent in an ordinary name. Now plays on names are most common in Semitic antiquity (cf. Jesus’ play on Peter = “stone”), but in the present case the conjurer was giving the veritable etymology of the word.

Of course this was not orthodox8. Did the conjurer get his knowledge of the pronunciation of YHWH from an esoteric Jewish tradition? Or did it possibly come to him by way of Greek magic ? This theory would explain the b as the third letter in the name—cf. ’Iαβε. However this may be, he knows enough to interpret correctly and practically a Jewish name which was charged with magic potency.

It may be added that in others of these text9 I had already discovered the same combination ‘הב’ה in connections requiring that it should be understood as a divine name, and had already proposed that it was nothing else than Yahweh.


J. A. Montgomery

  • 1See Moore in the Harper Memorial Volume, I, p. 145 S.
  • 2See Arnold, “The Divine Name,” etc. Journal of Biblical Literature, XXIV, p. 152 ff
  • 3See Jour. Bib. Lit., XXV, p. 49. In genera] see the writer’s Samaritans, p. 213.
  • 4Deissmann, Bibelstudien, p. 1 f. (Eng. tr. Bible Studies. p. 321).
  • 5In the center of the field of the cut, l. 4 from the top.
  • 6The Hebrew letters he and cheth are represented by the same character in this script.
  • 7In our illustration the letters of the name are reinforced in order to distinguish them from the rest of the text.
  • 8It is a question how far the epithet “Jewish” is to be applied to this bowl-magic.
  • 9One bowl published by a German scholar contains it, but it has remained unrecognized.

Cite This Article

Montgomery, J. A.. "The Pronunciation of the “Ineffable Name” According to a Jewish Text in the Museum." The Museum Journal I, no. 2 (September, 1910): 28-30. Accessed July 18, 2024.

This digitized article is presented here as a historical reference and may not reflect the current views of the Penn Museum.

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